As the fall season has kicked into high gear — certain COVID-19 restrictions, aside — so, too, has UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA), with the return of the Tune In Festival. Taking place online Nov. 4–7, the four-day convening of more than 30 artists and ensembles will pay homage to the traditions of music and poetry. Creative Advisor Kristy Edmunds (she recently left CAP UCLA to become director at MASS MoCA) gave associate curatorial honors to award-winning performance poet J. Ivy and pianist Lisa Kaplan for this year’s festival.
The roster is decidedly rich and features, among others, poet Sunni Patterson, Lebanese-American tenor Karim Sulayman, the contemporary violin duo the Furies, American folksinger/songwriter Mariee Sioux, Mina Tindle with Bryce Dessner, poet Jessica Care Moore, and composer Errollyn Wallen. But wait, there’s more! As Kaplan is founding pianist of the four-time Grammy Award winning sextet Eighth Blackbird, this ensemble is also featured prominently.
And while last year’s iteration drew thousands of viewers from 15 countries and presented more established artists, including Kronos Quartet, Kaplan explained that this celebration is “perhaps very different in that it contains a lot of artists who are more at the beginnings of their careers. The focus is on new compositions and groups that commission new works [including] the Thalea String Quartet.
“What I love about them,” added Kaplan, “is that they’re so talented, they’re passionate, and they’re commissioning a lot of people to write works for them. They remind me of Blackbird 20 years ago.”
Kaplan, on the cusp of 47, said that the Thalea, which performs on the first and last day of the program, recorded nearly 75 minutes of music, including Andy Akiho’s Prospects of a Misplaced Year, with Kaplan on piano. “I really wanted to program this epic piano quintet. I’ve known Andy for a long time and I love his music. This piece is only three years old and Thalea agreed to play it with me. It’s a beautiful kind of massive work and I’m looking forward to people hearing that.”
Another monumental work closes the festival: Julius Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, with baritone Davóne Tines. Eastman, an African American composer, pianist, vocalist, and dancer, died tragically in 1990 at age 49, and his music is having a renaissance. Kaplan admitted she’s wanted to program the piece for a long time.
“It’s got 10 cellos and it’s kind of unbelievable. I first started listening to his music when it was being rereleased five or six years ago. The minimalistic flavor is a part of it and I’m a hard-core minimalist at heart. He uses pop and funk idioms and there’s also a grit to his music that I find very emotional.”
As for programming Eighth Blackbird, Kaplan pointed out that the group has a long history with Edmunds and UCLA. “Kristy really encouraged us to be involved and said, ‘This is part of you and what you do. You can’t not be involved.’ The works we chose to present are wildly different and the contrasts are a big component of Tune In. The Clarity of Cold Air by Jonathan Bailey Holland is an amazing soundscape. We’ve been playing it for a while and we wanted to share with everyone.”
In addition, Blackbird is performing Julia Wolfe’s Singing in the Dead of Night, which is also the title of the group’s most recent (2019) album. “Julia’s piece is this journey of vigorous, physical playing from every member of the sextet — not only individually, but as an ensemble. It’s the exact opposite of Jonathan’s piece. There’s a big emotional range for both of those pieces and we thought that would be an interesting pairing.”
With one of the Tune In Festival’s taglines, “Can Music and Poetry Change the World,” Kaplan believes they can. “I think that nothing happens quickly, but you cannot be passive. It’s figuring out ways we can be more active and obviously, there’s changes you can make on a smaller level and then on a bigger level.
“It’s sometimes difficult to see that when you’re an artist yourself,” continued Kaplan, “because it’s hard to be objective. But conversations I’ve had with other people say that they are driven to feel something that is intangible. There’s no other space in which they necessarily feel that way. Feeling drives people to do things — to speak up when they might not have before [and] what we’re sharing with everyone is also going to be something where each viewer can take something away that is meaningful.”